EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — They turned it over four times. The star receiver got himself benched for the first half. One of their most indispensable defenders was knocked out with an injury.
For the 2013 Nittany Lions, it added up to a win.
Christian Hackenberg starred in his first game for Penn State, Eugene Lewis scored the winning touchdown and the Lions defense held off a late Syracuse rally for a 23-17 win in the opener at MetLife Stadium.
The Lions overcame two interceptions, two lost fumbles, playing the first half without wideout Allen Robinson for disciplinary reasons and playing the entire second without injured linebacker Mike Hull.
Hackenberg, the hyped true freshman, didn’t disappoint, throwing for 278 yards and two touchdowns to offset a pair of interceptions. The second score covered 54 yards to Lewis, the former Wyoming Valley West star, for what proved to be the game-winner.
Both were playing in their first collegiate game.
“Penn State, we can’t dip our toe in the water,” Lions coach Bill O’Brien said of allowing Hackenberg to throw in all situations. “We have to come out ready to go. We’ve got to take our shots. If we make a mistake, then we play complementary football and see if the defense can hold them there.
“We have a lot of improvement to do on offense, but I think everybody can see that there’s talent there — young (guys) mixed with veterans. I just need to do a better job of coaching those guys on offense.”
First the youth.
Hackenberg was 21-for-32 and his 278 yards were the second most by a Penn State freshman quarterback, behind only Zack Mills, who threw for 280 as a redshirt freshman.
Not bad for a guy who just arrived on campus in June and was suddenly playing in front of 60,000-plus in an NFL stadium.
“It’s a big change,” Hackenberg said of his sudden rise into the spotlight as the starting quarterback. “The coaching staff has helped me get through this, the team has helped me get through this. I’m just really trying to immerse myself in the team and what the coaches are preaching everyday.”
“He’s a very poised kid,” said O’Brien, who revealed that he decided on Hackenberg as his starter two weeks ago, though he never announced it publicly. “He’s got a fantastic demeanor. He’s got great parents and I think that’s one of the things that stood out to me in recruiting.
“He’s only 18. He’s got a tremendous future, but we’re not ready to waltz him into the College Football Hall of Fame or the NFL Hall of Fame. We’re just saying he’s a talented guy.”
He showed the good and the bad Saturday. His decisive touchdown to Lewis was right on the money after Lewis had cleanly beaten the safety over the top. His first career score — a 51-yard connection to Robinson — was set up by a very good pump fake to get Robinson wide open, but the pass was underthrown.
Robinson was open enough, though, to stop and haul it in before burning past everyone from a dead stop for the touchdown.
Robinson’s mere presence on the field was enough to lift the offense. The junior was benched by O’Brien in the first half — “That’s between Allen and me,” O’Brien said — as the Lions subsisted mainly on a short passing game filled with screens. They led just 6-3 at halftime.
When he took the field in the third quarter, Robinson promptly racked up six catches for 116 yards and a score before the frame was over.
“He’s a great player and he made a lot of big plays for us today, as well as Geno (Lewis),” Hackenberg said.
Robinson’s score made it 13-3 and Lewis, who finished with two catches for 62 yards, extended the lead to 23-10 midway through the fourth.
The Orange wouldn’t go away. O’Brien allowed Hackenberg to throw on third-and-long late in the fourth, and the Syracuse came up with an interception to set up a touchdown that made it 23-17.
Syracuse had two shots at driving for a tying touchdown in the final five minutes, but the Lions defense stiffened both times. Sophomore corner Trevor Williams closed it out when he picked off Drew Allen on an underthrown ball down the sideline.
The pick came right in front of the Lions bench, and started the celebration to close out a hectic day.
“Our team really came together and got a win,” senior linebacker Glenn Carson said. “Now we’re just looking to keep things rolling. We have a really special thing going.”